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Whose pronoun is it?

Writing last week at Throw grammar from the train, Jan Freeman pointed out that National Grammar Day has become International Grammar Day, what with interest from Johnson, the language blog of The Economist.

After praising this year’s “Grammarnoir” series (too kind, too kind), which also had an international component, she went on to throw her weight back of the inanimate whose, the subject of a simmering debate at Visual Thesaurus, and of the doughty Erin Brenner, who challenged a couple of writers who insisted, against all evidence, that constructions like “an idea whose time has come” are illegitimate.

Ms. Freeman writes that Ms. Brenner, after providing ample evidence of longstanding usage, “isn’t asking us readers if it's wrong; she has shown that it ISN’T wrong. She asked if we cared to use it ourselves. We are free to avoid it, or any other usage, but there are simply no factual grounds for calling it an error.”

Then there’s some muttering about “reading actual literature instead of dodgy usage advice” before she attempts to regain her good humor in the face of implacable peevery.

So let’s stay clear. You can prefer to restrict whose to animate beings, just as you can decline to use that in referring to human beings, but these little preferences do not have the force of law and in fact ignore centuries of usage by responsible writers.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:44 PM | | Comments (2)


I was once told, in a most authoritarian tone (as in, don't even try to dispute this) that "whose" in such usages is known as a "possessive prenominal adjective." Source: one Steve Brown, onetime copy editor and often slot at the El Paso Times.

So there.

Ms Brenner and Ms Freeman and Mr McIntyre are so obviously right that one wonders why it should be necessary for them to spell it out. More to the point, however, why has my own English, in which the correct construction is "an idea wots time has come" produced so few responsible writers?

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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